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  • Abkhaz by Viacheslav A. Chirikba
  • Thomas R. Wier
Abkhaz. By Viacheslav A. Chirikba. (Languages of the world/Materials 119.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2003. Pp. 92. ISBN 3895861367. $40.

Though North-West Caucasian languages like Abkhaz have become by-words for complexity and ‘exoticness’, they have received little in the way of descriptive treatment, a problem that this work seeks to remedy. It gives a broad but succinct survey of Abkhaz in ten chapters. The introductory chapter deals with the sociolinguistic, dialectal, and ethnographic history of the region from antiquity through Byzantine and Turkish hegemony to the present day. Since the 1992–93 conflict with Georgia, Abkhazia’s demographics have changed markedly, with many ethnic Georgians leaving for Georgia proper. This could have easily provided fodder for tendentious political polemic, but Chirikba has managed to avoid this, concentrating on how the war altered the linguistic balance of the region. He also briefly examines the history of Abkhaz literatures and writing systems, and how they have become iconic for Abkhaz political identity.

Ch. 1 discusses the language’s phonology. Abkhaz is probably best known to general linguists for its vanishingly small vocalic inventory (/a/ and schwa) and its huge consonantal inventory: a minimum of 59 and over 100 in some dialects. Abkhaz tolerance for consonant clusters is also noteworthy, though not as great as neighboring (unrelated) Georgian.

Ch. 2, on morphology, surveys Abkhaz’s highly agglutinative and polysynthetic character. Unlike its sister languages in North-West Caucasian, Abkhaz has developed a partly covert system of nominal classes that surface not in case endings but as cross-reference on the verb. This system divides nominals into human and nonhuman, with the latter further subdivided into masculine and feminine. Like Georgian, Abkhaz has no separate morphological class of adjectives and is postpositional; postpositions inflect for the person and number of their complements when not cliticized. The verb is by far the most complex feature of Abkhaz morphology, with no less than seventeen distinct templatic slots for verbal arguments, number, tense, aspect, negation, evidentiality, and various valence changing processes. Verbs may specify up to four arguments, but the realization of cross-reference for these arguments is often opaque owing to frequent homophony among them. Adjusting for this homophony, these agreement markers show an unremarkable kind of morphological ergativity. However, when it comes to broader syntactic patterning, C demonstrates that the usual coordination tests fail to identify Abkhaz syntactically as either accusative or ergative: the intransitive coordinand may refer to either A or O roles. Such a state of affairs is highly marked, although C notes that it is also attested in Chukchi. [End Page 516]

Chs. 3, 4, and 5 take up less than two pages (55–56) and simply mention the existence of parts of speech not covered in Ch. 2. Ch. 3, ‘Verbals’, gives brief descriptions of participles, converbs (verbal adverbs), and masdars (verbal nouns). Ch. 4 describes adverbs and features of their derivation, while Ch. 5 mentions a few universal and scalar quantifiers. It is not clear why these were not included in Ch. 2.

Ch. 6 sketches syntax. Abkhaz is neither clearly right- nor left-branching: demonstratives and possessors precede their head noun, while adjectives and quantifiers follow it. Word order is largely free, though AOV predominates with AVO as a less frequent alternative. C also discusses imperatives, direct and indirect speech, question formation, coreference, and a variety of clausal constructions. Ch. 7 briefly explores focus particles, topicalization, and other discourse-related phenomena, while Chs. 8 and 9 provide information on layering of the lexicon and an Abkhaz text, respectively.

This work is not intended to be comprehensive. It is an excellent introduction to the language and will certainly be useful both to theoretical linguists and to scholars of related and nearby languages. B. G. Hewitt’s grammatical sketch in the series Indigenous languages of the Caucasus (Vol. 2: The north west Caucasian languages, ed. by B. George Hewitt, Delmar, NY: Caravan Books, 1989) covers similar territory, but due to the relative rarity of that series, C’s work as part of this present series will make information on the language more widely available.

Thomas R. Wier
University of...


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